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Oklahoma Earthquakes Shake Up Scientists, Rattle Politicians

By Brian Sherrod, United States Geological Survey (United States Geological Survey Multimedia Gallery) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Oklahoma earthquakes have shoved California out of first-place as the most seismically active state in the union. In fact, Oklahoma has become more seismically active than all lower forty-eight states combined. It is now one of the most active regions in the world, and the danger, according to the USGS, is greater than you think.

Oklahoma earthquakes break new ground

 

“I have never seen anything like it anywhere in the world,” said a USGS scientist about Oklahoma’s earthquakes, which have increased in number and intensity at an exponential rate:

 

According to Daniel McNamara, a research geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, the state has already seen five earthquakes of a 4.0 or greater in 2016, which is double the monthly rate for 2015…. [in less than two weeks] “I don’t know what to say frankly. It’s incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere in the world. The only time you get this kind of activity might be after a very large earthquake, like a seven or eight (magnitude) in a place like Nepal or China or Indonesia or in volcanic regions.”

 

Geologically tired Oklahoma, however, is not one of those regions. It’s foundation is some of the oldest solid rock on earth; but it’s coming alive now. The state was shaken on January 6, 2016, by two of the largest quakes it has experienced, a 4.7 and 4.8. It is not the present size that is of concern, though, but the awakening … and the fact that the size of the Oklahoma earthquakes keeps growing. The area has had nineteen earthquakes over 3.0 on the Richter scale in the week following that last shake up. Counting all smaller quakes, the state has had seventy quakes in one week. Yet, all of that is just a tiny part of the escalating ground tremors over the past decade.

While those are all fairly small earthquakes compared to west-coast quakes, they are uncommonly large as far as Oklahoma earthquakes go. The 4.8 was the fourth-largest in state history. That and a few other factors lead some scientists to now wonder if “the big one” is about to burst beneath Oklahoma:

 

When Americans speak of “the big one,” they’re talking about the potential for a super-massive earthquake that could essentially destroy most of quake-prone California. Now some scientists believe something similar could happen in the once geologically placid Oklahoma. (OilPrice.com)

 

These small earthquakes have crumbled brick facades, toppled columns and chimneys and caused an electrical blackout; but their damage is growing each year and so is concern — politically, legally and financially.

 

I do think there’s a really strong chance that Oklahoma will receive some strong shaking,” said Daniel McNamara … who has studied Oklahoma’s earthquake history. “I’m surprised [Wednesday night’s quakes] didn’t rupture into a larger event.

 

The frequency of Oklahoma earthquakes has been rising for nearly a decade and tracks almost exactly with the expansion of the fracking industry — both in the timing of that industry’s work and the locations. They’ve also been building in other midwestern states, but the growth is only where fracking is happening. Originally, the Oklahoma earthquakes were more along the lines of 2.0 or 3.0, so the increase in the number of temblors that are well above 4.0 is becoming politically activating.

Before 2008, Oklahoma experienced fewer than two earthquakes each year. Now there are more than that many each day! Each year since 2008, the number of quakes increased exponentially to where Oklahoma had 842 earthquakes you could feel in 2015 (5,000 that could be detected with a seismograph).

Compared to Oklahoma’s norm, the state experienced a millennium’s worth of earthquakes in one year, raising the Sooner State to become one of the most seismically active regions on the earth, and if that increase continues at the same annual rate, 2016 could see more than 2,000 earthquakes you can feel.

 

How shaken should you become over Oklahoma’s earthquakes?

 

All of this is of man’s own making, as will be laid out below. The USGS has stated in a report that waste water injected back into oil wells after fracking is loosening slippery rocks. (Some wells receive as much as 9,000,000,000 gallons of waste water with the median being 671,000 gallons.) This is the first time a government agency has acknowledged human-induced earthquakes along moving fault lines.

Perhaps this explains the mystery booms reported many times around Oklahoma when no explosion is known to have happened above ground. Water pumped that deep into the ground may turn to steam. As such vast quantities of water expand, they may create huge pressure that bursts through the stone underground, causing a boom. That’s one theory for the booms that many have suggested. If so, fracking water is doing a lot more than lubricating faults, it’s jarring them and, in some cases, maybe even exploding inside of them

The new concern at the USGS and in the state capital is whether humans are going to trigger a much larger catastrophe upon themselves. Some US scientists see a contagion risk that these smaller Oklahoma earthquakes may be causing structural changes inside the earth that create potential for a massive earthquake:

 

Jeremy Boak, the director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, told the Tulsa World that the earthquakes we have been experiencing increase the likelihood that a bigger, more powerful earthquake is on the horizon. “There’s no doubt in terms of induced seismicity, we’re the epicenter of it now…. As we keep adding more earthquakes, there is steadily more and more risk of having a single earthquake at that higher end.

 

“It’s unclear exactly how high we might go, and the predictions are upper 5-6 range for most things that I’ve seen,” Todd Halihan, a researcher from OSU, told NewsChannel 4 last year. “Underneath any of these urban areas, whether it’s Stillwater, Cushing, Oklahoma City, Guthrie, these cities are not built to seismic standards. They’re not in L.A.”

 

McNamara told the newspaper in November. “We have as many as 13 different fault zones in Oklahoma with magnitude 4s occurring on them this year alone…. Any one of these looks like it could produce a 5 or 6-magnitude earthquake, so we’re very concerned….”   (KFOR Television)

 

But the risk doesn’t stop at a magnitude six. That’s the conservative estimate. Elsewhere, McNamara said that it’s possible this very old fault system, which hasn’t been inactive for some time, could produce even larger quakes than that, but that he was keeping his projections to the worst earthquake known in recent history on that main fault line. Recent history, however, has not known fracking all along that fault line.

But there’s more:

According to one source, some seismologists have speculated there could be a connection between this area and the infamous New Madrid Seismic Zone, the colossus of the United States:

 

The quakes have been attributed, but not confirmed, to the New Madrid fault line, which has become more volatile in recent years. The New Madrid fault zone covers portions of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi. The zone is 6 times bigger than the San Andreas fault in California. (Christian Post)

 

I couldn’t find any scientists who actually made that attribution. Whether connected  or not, however, the hazard from the Oklahoma earthquakes is considered equal to the hazard of the New Madrid faults by the USGS:

 

The U.S. Geological Survey said today that it’s planning to significantly upgrade its forecasts of seismic hazards in places such as Oklahoma…. Mark Petersen, a seismologist … said the ground-shaking forecasts were comparable to parts of California and the New Madrid seismic zone. The New Madrid fault, which runs from southern Illinois through Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, produced a magnitude 7 earthquake in 1811. (Reveal)

 

And what would a New-Madrid-fault-sized earthquake look like?

 

On Dec. 16, 1811, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake hit the New Madrid fault line, which lies on the border region of Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. It’s by far the largest earthquake ever to strike the United States east of the Rockies. Up to 129,000 square kilometers [50,000 square miles] were hit with “raised or sunken lands, fissures, sinks, sand blows, and large landslides,” according to the U.S. Geological Service. “Huge waves on the Mississippi River overwhelmed many boats and washed others high onto the shore. High banks caved and collapsed into the river; sand bars and points of islands gave way; whole islands disappeared.” People as far away as New York City were awakened by the shaking. (Wired)

 

Let’s play roulette with something like that! See if we can ring the church bells in Boston like the last big New-Madrid earthquake did. That earthquake was also described as causing the prairies to roll like the ocean while shooting up geysers of sand and yellow, toxic gas. It even caused the Mississippi River to run backwards for several hours, and caused settlers and Indians alike to believe the end of the world had come.

An alternative thought is what happens if the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which badly shook Oklahoma during its last major earthquake, should rupture again while so many faults in Oklahoma are already giving way on their own due to man-made lubrication and pressure? Would such a shaker crack them all loose at once like putting one lit stick of dynamite inside a box of dynamite? Let’s prime the whole system in the midwest with fracking wells, and see if we can loosen it up enough for everything to go at once!

From that lovely little thought, consider that eight states spread across the midwest are dealing with a huge increase in earthquakes caused by the injection of waste water left over from fracking operations, though Oklahoma tops them all. Consider that the New Madrid Seismic Zone, when one of its faults breaks lose, is known to shake the entire midwest. Does the presence of hundreds, if not thousands of lubricated and ready-to-go faults within the shaking area compound the risk by creating a possible cascade of events ready to go?

 

HyrdoFakkingWells

 

Consider also that, while a 7.7 earthquake on the Ricther scale, like the one that happened in New Madrid, is smaller than the size of earthquakes than can happen along the San Andreas, the monolithic rock under the midwest allows seismic shock to affect much larger areas. California is broken up and rumpled with fault lines and mountains that diffuse the shock waves; but the midwest is more like shield of solid rock underneath so the shock waves are not interrupted. The difference looks like this:

 

madridzone

 

Notice how a smaller earthquake covers a far bigger area. As a result, the New Madrid Seismic Zone (longer than the San Andreas) caused the largest earthquake in the history of the United States in terms of the extent of area that shook and the amount of shaking in areas far from the epicenter.

 

But another fault lies within Oklahoma itself

 

 

Oklahoma earthquakes fault zone

 

The Nemaha Ridge Fault, which runs from Nebraska, through Kansas, to Oklahoma — ending right in the part of Oklahoma where most of the earthquake swarms are happening — has the 2nd-most potential for earthquake damage in the Midwest. It is bounded by numerous now-active smaller faults (where the fracking quakes are happening).

So, really, Oklahoma doesn’t need any help from New Madrid to cause great damage if the Nemaha breaks loose. Sure, that fault only ruptures about every 10,00o years; but, hey, lets see if we can rouse Oklahoma style so that it comes Sooner rather than later.

 


On Shaky Ground: Eye-witness accounts of the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812 (MISSOURI HERITAGE READERS)


 

Whose fault is it? Oil companies sued over Oklahoma earthquakes

 

Now comes the part where I tie in to the economic theme of this blog with something that could be a black swan as dark as oil even if no great quake ever happens due to fracking.

As if the fracking oil industry is not in enough economic trouble right now due to the Arabian oil price war, it has just been held legally responsible for earthquake damage, something no one envisioned when issuing bonds to frackers. That rise on the Richter scale directly corresponds to a volcanic rise in political and legal heat. For the first time in the history of the world, people are suing corporations for earthquakes that come from the movement of natural fault lines, and the Oklahoma State supreme court has said they can be held guilty.

 

This week, a group of 14 homeowners in Edmond, Oklahoma filed a lawsuit against 12 energy companies…. The lawsuit targets the companies’ wastewater disposal wells, claiming that the injection of fracking wastewater into these wells “caused or contributed” to earthquakes and constituted an “ultrahazardous activity….” The plaintiffs say they suffered damage from the earthquakes, and that the energy companies were “negligent, careless, and reckless” in their treatment of the earthquake risks…. This damage includes “cracked and broken interior and exterior walls” and “movement of the foundations beneath their dwellings.” These damages have taken a toll on the residents psyches, too, causing “mental and emotional anguish, fear, and worry.” (Think Progress)

 

Now that the supreme court has cleared the way for people to sue corporations for earthquakes that happen along natural fault lines, what will this do to the insurability of those companies when fracking quakes are cracking plates on a daily basis according to US scientists? How long before actuaries say, “Hmm, by insuring this one oil company, we could be liable for all the damage that happens in 100-mile radius or larger, depending on the size of the quake?”

That pressure doesn’t stop with just the Oklahoma supreme court’s recent decision. Some Oklahoma politicians are pressing legislation to prevent injecting waste water into fracking wells. State officials have said fracking-caused earthquakes are a potential risk to citizens. (Who would have thought ten years ago such a world was even possible?) So, the risk is now publicly acknowledge at both a scientific level and an official state level.

In doing so, state officials are attacking Oklahoma’s leading industry, which accounts for 10% of the state economy and a major source of employment in the state. Bound to be a large political fight, I think. Crashing international oil prices and rising legal, political and regulatory expenses are enough to make frackers go crackers; so, of course, they are fighting back:

 

Last month, a financially troubled producer in the northern oil and gas fields struck by Wednesday’s quakes, SandRidge Energy Incorporated, broke industry ranks and refused the commission’s request to scale back its underground waste disposal. The two sides are scheduled to meet on Friday in a final attempt to avert a court battle over the commission’s authority. (The New York Times)

 

Those that refuse state requests to be careful, open themselves to even greater liability. Beyond that, the already damaged fracking industry could be shut off at the well heads if it has no way to dispose of its waste water due to new government restrictions or if the companies become uninsurable because they can be held liable for all the damage created by earthquakes that happen years down the road.

As if a new world in which people can legitimately sue others for earthquakes is not strange enough, there are the new problems people are having with their well-water becoming flammable! After fracking operations have happened in their area, some have been able to light their well water on fire due to the methane gas suspended in the water that was not present prior to the fracking. That’s because the cracks created by fracking explosion may extend up into aquifers, and the damage to aquifers that life depend on can never be undone.

 

 

Oh, for the good ol’ days when the only water we could burn was Lake Erie and the Ohio River. There is nothing like a flaming cup of water to spice up a meal. This human-adjusted water adds a whole new Okie interpretation to the now literal possibilities of “being baptized with fire and water.” Brave new world.

Has human greed extinguished the last of common sense? When your well water burns, it’s past time to stop what we’re doing. How can one even bring himself to attempt an argument that flammable well water is no big deal?

 

Deeper reading on the New-Madrid earthquakes:

 

And two action novels based on risks of the New Madrid Seismic Zone or fracking earthquakes:

 

Deeper reading on fracking earthquakes:

 

Here for your own fracking tracking: the Oklahoma Earthquake Tracker for up-to-date EQ reports.

  • Alleged Comment

    Phew! That is some of the most productive areas of America.

  • William B Stoecker

    Perhaps the “stable heartland” is just a myth. If the North American plate is being pushed westward by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge while the Pacific plate is moving to the north, obviously something has to give somewhere between the two. Some years ago I wrote an article suggesting that the New Madrid fault is part of something larger, extending from the St. Lawrence River valley, down along Lake Erie, the Wabash, part of the Ohio River, and on down the Mississippi to the Gulf. I am only a layman, but I discovered that a retired petroleum geologist had come up with the same idea.
    Ironically, the fracking may release most of the stress in Oklahoma by triggering many small quakes, preventing a much larger one. We simply don’t know.

  • jakartaman

    Its just part of the beginning wrath!

  • Hi, Dave. Ever watch HBO’s “Blood & Oil”? It’s a soap opera set in the fictional boom town of Rock Springs, North Dakota — right in the heart of the massive Bakken formation oil field. The show is a bit of a bust, which is okay because it’s fiction.

    But I can’t help wonder about reality — what all the fracking done in the Bakken means for the actual wilderness in that area and the people living there, the ones who embraced fracking for all it’s worth!

    btw Have you seen the NY markets today? Opened with a crash.

    • The show is a bust just as the many boom towns or the Bakken region are becoming a bust. The most concerning things is that, by the time the environmental issues are widespread enough for people to generally agree about them, we may have created many more problems underground that are just beginning to manifest. Cracks that are so slowly bubbling rising natural gas up into the aquifers may over time destroy entire aquifers. Cracks may expand under the pressure of water turned to steam very slowly given all the pressure from a mile or two of overburden; but they may expand all the same, so the gas may move faster over time.

      Or they may not.

      But we don’t know. No one can see what structural changes are happening underground; but two things we do know: 1) Structural changes are happening that are significant to allow natural gas to leak into aquifers that were never contaminated before, and 2) we have no way of sealing those cracks.

      The cracks created by the numerous explosions done intentionally to “frack” the rock go wherever they want. As with any explosion, it’s not just one crack with each explosion but hundreds of fissures in hundreds of directions, and the cracks are intended to run a long way into the rock in order to release as much gas and oil as possible. Obviously some have made it all the way through the rock so that gas, instead of going into the well line is following the crack up to the aquifer, and that may also mean water is draining down the crack into hotter material where it becomes more steam. We don’t know. What we do know is there are so many random cracks that are so large in so many directions that there is virtually no chance the we could seal all of them off.

      So, what happens with that natural gas, including the methane talked about in the video, has been bubbling up into that aquifer for twenty years … then a hundred years. There are places on earth, as pointed out in the video where aquifers are contaminated by gas where man has done no fracking, but very few. That’s because there are naturally going to be some places where cracks exist in the rock that allow gas to seep up; but now we are making millions of cracks. What happens when that much gas and heat hits the upper aquifer? Could it be the the earthquakes from fracking are slowly getting bigger because the pressures are growing?

      • Too right. :-/

        I’ve got excellent well water — but for how long, even here in the Northeast?

    • oldmanjb77

      I used to work for Halliburton Services in the early 80’s , was laid off in 84. we were fracking old wells that were drilled in the 30’s to bring more oil and gas out.
      Everyone thinks fracking is new .

      • Interesting to learn it is not as new as many of us think. It is, however, vastly more widespread, and what is new is that the USGS and the Oklahoma Supreme court have both determined that the injection of fracking waste water into disposal wells is the cause of all these earthquakes.

        • oldmanjb77

          Big money gets what they want, we the little people have no say anymore. I went on many frack jobs , I ran the blender or kept pressure on the back side . On the blender I mixed the slime jell with the synthetic sand . The sand props up the formations and lets the oil flow thru. The jell was to help the synthetic sand slid thru the cracks in the formations . I remember this one huge frack job down by Carlsbad , NM that we had 12 trucks with twin v-12 engines all tied to a large manifold . I walked back and forth on cat walk on top of manifold and opened valves and closed them as the trucks came off line. We had a lot of spectators and suits on site. I was told later you could feel the vibrations 8 miles away . We went to old abandon wells from the 30’s fracked them. Some produced more oil and gas , but some we opened up for oil storage from oil from the middle east.
          Also there was a lot of experimental wip stock drilling (boring sideways ) they drill down then angle sideways. I was in my early 20’s now late 50’s

          • It’s amazing when you see and hear that kind of heavy equipment at work. I remember watching as the nearby Nanakuli power plant on O’ahu started running overcapacity because all the other power plants on the island shut down in a cascade when a lightning strike took out some high-tension lines. The plant roared like I had never heard and let out huge explosions of steam as pressure-relief valved repeatedly popped off as they tried to keep the island going and tried to use the power of Nanakuli’s turbines to restart the other plants. As I walked past houses I could hear all their air conditioners reving up as the plant over generated when the steam went too high because they seemed to be firing it as hot as they could get it, then I’d hear the roaring burst of the pressure valve way over at the plant and hear the air conditioners in the neighborhood all slow back down. You could smell their electrical motors smoking as the plant seemed to be cycling almost out of control — running to high then all the big pressure valves popping off, and slowing back down. The pool pumps on the property I managed were doing the same thing, overeving and then slowing back down. I could smell smoke from them, too, so I shut them all off. After a few hours of running like this, the Nanakuli plant went down, too, and it was lights-out all over the island. it took a couple of days, i think, to get power back up because none of the other plants could start cold — only Nanakuli. The rest had to be juiced by running Nanakuli power through their generators to get them to start spinning. So, that was why they had done everything they could to keep Nanakuli running as fast and hard as it would go until they finally broke it.

            • oldmanjb77

              It didn’t help much with all the people and their air conditioners running. We here in Ohio have peak electric times in the summer.
              My power cycles on and off several times a week during those peak times. Our area has out grown our electrical sub-station. too many new homes and extreme amount of warehouse development .

            • Yeah, nobody was helping them out; that’s for sure. I wondered why they didn’t shut some areas down since they also were not helping anyone out by damaging their equipment with constant power surges. I shut everything I had running down just to protect it.

            • oldmanjb77

              yea I know firs hand , I had to replace 2 fan motors on our ac unit .
              My wife says she needs ac on . I work in a plant without ac every year its hot but I survive

        • oldmanjb77

          one other thing , we were not allowed to hunt arrow heads because the USGS and the archaeological people would shut down the entire site. could cost millions.